by E. Ann Kaplan
Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 1, 9-10
LAST TANGO IN PARIS is an important film because of the way it deals with film history. By showing the inadequacy of and parodying two recent influential film styles, 1950s Hollywood and French New Wave, Bertolucci critiques and condemns the outmoded ideas and attitudes which informed these styles. This important aspect of LAST TANGO has been ignored, partly because the film so quickly became a cultural object encrusted with layers of largely irrelevant criticism that diverted attention from deeper meanings. But the aspect was also ignored because Bertolucci did not present it clearly. I will argue that the film ultimately failed, largely for this reason, and then go on to show the confusion that resulted from casting Brando in the role of Paul. I will discuss sexism in the film and Bertolucci’s failure to make clear statements about Jeanne. I will end by suggesting what I think Bertolucci is really saying about outmoded social forms and film styles. The insights are there, although they lie beneath the surface of the film. Bertolucci must be praised for his critique of bourgeois styles and attitudes, but criticized for not finding a technique adequate to express expressing his perceptions.
Bertolucci’s failure to establish a coherent perspective on events in the film through style and tone makes LAST TANGO a particularly difficult film to interpret. The late 50s and early 60s French New Wave accustomed us to ambivalence in the directors’ attitude to their films and even to their characters, but the overall tone, style and mood of each film indicated well enough what the director was expressing. LAST TANGO, however, lacks a consistent attitude on the director’s part of the and thus has produced an especially confused and subjective critical controversy. Critics have differed in their interpretations of the film because Bertolucci has not placed the encounter between Paul and Jeanne within a framework that would clearly tell us what he is saying about the characters. The actors could, perhaps, have provided the perspective themselves. (Many critics suggest that the film would have been quite different with Dominique Sanda and Jean-Louis Trintignant.) But in contrast to this, Brando dominates the film.
Let me dwell on Brando for a moment because his overwhelming screen presence is at least partially responsible for the confusion about the film. Brando uses essentially the same acting style that had worked so well in his U.S. 50s movies. Here this clashes with Bertolucci’s own more modern, European attitudes and style. The sheer strength of Brando’s personality in a film like this is jarring. His old method acting, tough Hollywood style, is often quite out of place, as in the scene near the start of the film when Paul is reminiscing about his past with Jeanne. That style was fine for U.S. films like STREETCAR and ON THE WATERFRONT. Here the effect of drawing the audience in close to the character is inappropriate in Bertolucci’s very European kind of cinema. Brando’s acting style makes us feel a closeness which is unsuitable for the brutality and insensitivity of the character here. Both Terry and Stanley, despite their surface toughness and male aggressiveness are essentially good guys. But there is nothing likable about Paul. He is selfish, self-pitying, indulgent and hostile. Yet as Brando’s acting style draws us close to the character, it only leaves us puzzled as to what he is really all about, or what we are to feel towards him.
However, in one sense Brando was perfect for the part. If, as I'll argue, Bertolucci’s film is as much about film styles as it is about sex and bourgeois society, then Brando was a good choice for Paul through whom Bertolucci is commenting on 50s Hollywood film attitudes and styles. Brando immediately conjures up Terry and Stanley, although, of course, here he is an embittered, alienated and aging version, living out attitudes in a society where they no longer have meaning or context. But Brando (understandably) is unable to parody himself. Instead he seems to use the film for his own ends, expressing his personal loathing for bourgeois life and attitudes. In this, he is similar to other contemporary heroes, such as Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or, more recently, the two men in GOING PLACES. All these men so hate a false middle-class way of being, with its phony niceness and artificial goodness, that they become monsters in revolt against the majority in their culture. In LAST TANGO, one often feels that Brando is not really acting, but that he is rather expressing a real hostility toward society. He obviously feels that it is better to be openly and deliberately ugly and brutal than to subscribe to bourgeois superficiality, and the film was a perfect vehicle for expressing such ideas.
The result, however, of Brando’s using the film in this way is that he absolutely dominates the film and thus sends the whole thing off balance. To express what I think he wanted to express, Bertolucci would have had to establish a critical perspective on Brando. If one is looking for parody, one can find it in scenes where Paul’s actions are so extreme as to be ridiculous. For example, even the opening shots can be seen this way. The camera is tracking backwards, focusing on Brando walking slowly underneath a bridge with an incredibly pained expression on his face. A train passes overhead, and he curses “Fucking God!” into the roar. Everything is just a little too slow, a little too belabored to seem natural. At one point, when Jeanne comes to see Paul, he is sitting with his head covered. For a moment he resembles Bottom, the weaver with the ass head in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Another time, we see Paul crying meaninglessly, sitting in a broken chair while Jeanne masturbates in the other room. The butter scene is nearly ridiculous. And in some way, it is also hard to believe in Paul’s emotional outburst over his wife’s elaborately decked-out body. The scene again borders on the ridiculous.
Many people missed the director’s ironic tone in these scenes partly because the irony is subtle. Also, seeing it required familiarity with the consciousness and style in new films. Bertolucci takes types of people and attitudes common in new films. Then he exaggerates them so that we become distanced from the type or the attitude and look critically, often with ridicule. For example, in the opening scene mentioned above, Bertolucci constructs a very forced meeting between his two central characters. Paul is an exaggerated version of the typically alienated, lost, lonely modern hero as he plods slowly along with contorted face. The exaggeration of the familiar type makes it hard to take him seriously. The unreality of the scene caused by the emptiness of the streets and the echoing of Paul’s steps distances viewers even more as we wonder why the camera is staying so long with Paul. The second pair of footsteps turn out to belong to Jeanne, and we know that she and Paul will end up together. Bertolucci again exaggerates the “first meeting” scene, distancing us and shocking us into awareness of the attitudes that underlie such meetings in many films we have seen. Instead of merely flirting a bit with a total stranger and setting up a date, Brando virtually rapes a rather willing Jeanne. Impersonal genital sex is the basic form for encounters between lonely people in our culture. The shock may make us absorbed in the actual sexual meeting. But the abrupt ending and the matter of fact way each smoothes out clothes and departs is ironic because we still expect some kind of follow-up.
Bertolucci, thus, achieves his ironic tone by parody and exaggeration. He violates our expectations by going further than we are used to or by introducing some element that seems inappropriate. Thus he undercuts our ability to take a scene seriously. There is something comic about butter being used in the sodomy scene. Again, Brando covering his head or sitting among broken furniture crying seems inappropriate in the context and shatters our belief in that scene. We are shaken into an awareness about what is actually going on rather than merely accepting it passively.
The, undercutting can be missed because it is subtle, and also because the ironic tone is inconsistent. Often, Brando seems to be viewed totally without comment. It is logical for people to take Brando’s consciousness for the consciousness of the film. Bertolucci perhaps expected the audience to provide perspective for themselves—after all, one could expect anyone with a healthy view of sexuality to be disgusted by Paul’s treatment of Jeanne. But people evidently saw the encounter as merely an accurate version of the way things are, with nothing particularly wrong with it. Few critics saw Jeanne’s treatment as particularly shoddy, but rather they constantly referred to her as “slutty.” Evidently, reviewers accepted the stereotype as “true.”
For all his claims to be on the side of women’s Liberation, Bertolucci cannot have it both ways. Either he does intend Paul’s consciousness to be the film’s consciousness, in which case he did not have to make Jeanne believable. Or else he wants to criticize what Paul is doing, in which case he had to create a framework within which to view Paul and with which to show clearly how appalling the sexual encounter is. As it is, the relationship is presented in a sexist way. It is not enough to argue that the entire sexual relationship is intended to symbolize Paul/Brando’s hatred of bourgeois society; or that there are in fact girls like Jeanne who deserve all they get by putting themselves in the situation in the first place. Men’s hatred of bourgeois society does not justify taking out this hostility on women. Nor does the fact that we can empirically observe women acting like Jeanne, relieve Bertolucci of the responsibility (in an era of heightened consciousness about women’s psychology) of showing why Jeanne acts the way she does, how she has, in fact, internal internalized male ways of seeing women.
Sexism in this case then has to do with assumptions made about Jeanne without Bertolucci letting us understand what is going on in her mind. Presented in a stereotypically male point, she is ready to make love any time in any place, and she is apparently enjoying the initial abrupt encounter with Paul, whom she has just met in the apartment. Coming back for more, she is prepared to go on with the relationship, even though Paul hits her merely for wanting to tell him her name. She goes along with Paul’s silly sexual games, aimed at humiliating her, even though he tries all kinds of things on her. His games include keeping his clothes on while demanding she strip; withholding sex until she masturbates; anal intercourse when Jeanne angers him. All this leads up to the humiliating scene where Jeanne has to sodomize Paul with her fingers while repeating Paul’s fantasies of her performing degrading sexual acts for him. Paul never relates to Jeanne as a peer, even outside of sex. He mocks her, talks down to her and in every way treats her as an empty-headed little girl.
Inadequate in many ways as is Paul’s development as a character, we do have some idea of his mental state and his personal tragedy that somewhat explains his hostility and misery. This is not the case with Jeanne. Thirs is a one-sided relationship seen for the most part through Paul’s eyes. Jeanne functions as part of his world when the two are together, not as a character in her own right. Presented as a tool for Paul’s self exploration and for his acting out of his hostility, she becomes a thing, an object to be played with and to be used for Brando’s ends. Bertolucci never lets us know her thoughts, feelings or wishes. The few times she does rebel, it is in a childish, petulant way that no one can take seriously. Since we never know what Jeanne is thinking or why she is even bothering with Paul, her actions in the last part of the film are incomprehensible. Her abrupt murder of Paul is implausible. It reveals the extent to which Bertolucci has been working with fantasy in relation to Jeanne. Nothing in the rest of the film prepares us for her suddenly turning into an archetypal bitch. She has on the contrary been treated as a frothy headed, superficial little mod girl. But now Bertolucci throws in the bitch image simply because it fits what he wants to do with Paul. He is evidently not at all interested in Jeanne as a character. He has not even tried to think her through adequately, and merely draws on stereotypes of women as he needs them to develop his male character.
To summarize: the film reflects many overused myths and stereotypes of women in the treatment of Jeanne. For example, the film reflects men’s beliefs that women are inferior beings, made for men’s pleasure; that women really want to be humiliated and treated brutally; that women are essentially cold and rejecting, and will cut a man down once he’s become vulnerable; that women are essentially frivolous characters who don't know what they want or where they are headed; they are incapable of deep feeling or, true commitment.
Again, taking the film at its face value, these ideas about women may be seen to pervade the film and extend to all other women characters. Catherine, the maid, whom we see cleaning up Rosa’s room after the suicide, babbles on incoherently about what happened and seems stupid. Rosa’s mother is ridiculous in her grief, and is mocked by Paul throughout. Rosa herself is revealed to have been a bitch, taking lovers behind Paul’s back and giving him nothing. Indeed, the women around Paul become symbols for a grotesque and alienated world that offers Paul no comfort and no peace. Like Michel in Godard’s BREATHLESS, Paul, after using Jeanne for his own ends, becomes her victim. Both Michel and Paul die with ironic gestures as if to say, “What else can you expect from women?”
Looking at the film in this way, the image of women in LAST TANGO accords well with the images in contemporary fiction from Hemingway and Henry Miller to Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. Kate Millet’s analyses of the sexual debasement of women in modern fiction apply equally to LAST TANGO (see Millet, “Instances of Sexual Politics,” in Sexual Politics, New York, 1970). Like women in most fiction, Jeanne is a male projection rather than a character in her own right. Bertolucci never moves outside of male consciousness to present Jeanne as a person. In De Beauvoir’s existential terms, Jeanne remains “the other,” and never becomes a subject.
It is precisely this dehumanizing image of women that contemporary feminists are taking exception to.(1) Given the present consciousness about women’s roles, it was surprising that more critics did not deal with the sexism in the film. Grace Glueck’s review in the New York Times (March 28, 1973) was the only piece I saw which was totally from a feminist point of view. Other female critics—Judith Crist and (surprisingly) even Molly Haskell barely mentioned the sexism although they were critical of the film as a whole. (2) John Simon was a surprising bedfellow, but while he rightly attacked the sexism, he also had to attack “women libbers” for not attacking the sexism (New Leader Feb. 19, 1973). Norman Mailer predictably identified totally with Brando and was using his review of the film in the same way as Brando had used the film itself, that is, to vent his personal hostility toward society. He exults in the humiliating sex scenes while regretting that there was “no shot of Brando going up Schneider.” (3) Mailer delights in the degradation of Brando’s “beautiful closet-fuck” and recounts the scenes in detail in his review. Mailer is full of praise for what Brando reveals about himself and his sexual hostility. After going over the sodomizing scene, Mailer says about Brando:
I am not denying that Mailer and others like him (and Lawrence before them all) did not serve an important historical function in breaking through sexual taboos that were particularly repressive for women. In recognizing that women do have sexual needs and in fact enjoy sexuality, these writers destroyed the Victorian notion of woman as a pure, innocent being devoid of contact with the earthiness and ugliness of sex. Pauline Kael claims a similar breakthrough for LAST TANGO, although on a different level. She says that we have been used to mechanical sex in pornography but that we had never expected “a sex film that would churn up everyone’s emotions.” (4) Obviously, Italian (and to a lesser extent, French) consciousness is behind that created by the women’s movement in the contemporary United States. Possibly to those audiences Jeanne is breaking taboos in handling the affair with Paul so casually while continuing her relationship with her financé, totally free from guilt. But this merely reflects confusion about what being “liberated” means.
It may be true that Bertolucci is opening up the film form to certain realities about sexual relations and is thus contributing to overthrowing remaining puritan ideas about sex, but it is a pity that he remained within negative stereotypes about women. Bertolucci could have done something really interesting with Paul and Jeanne if he had built in an historical framework linking film styles to attitudes to sexuality in the film. Bertolucci clearly wanted to contrast the irresponsible, New Wave world of Jeanne and Tom, with the old style of suffering, the bitter world of jealousies, hurt and violence that Paul exists in and that is familiar to us from 50s U.S. films.
Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean Pierre Leaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.
Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism. But Bertolucci does not deal with Jeanne and Tom’s sexual relationship as a function of their world, nor with how unsatisfactory such a casual way of relating must be. We see that Jeanne is unthinkingly adored by Tom and that she is free to run around as she wishes, but Bertolucci makes no comment on the lack of emotional involvement between the two. Had the critique of male-female relationships in the New Wave context been made, then Jeanne’s interest in Paul could have been accounted for in the sense that Paul’s world, despite the degradation, was more interesting.
Paul, of course, belongs in the pre-New Wave world, where men were expected to dominate at their women. From the start, Paul assert control of Jeanne and the situation, and he continues that way until Jeanne wrests control from him at the end. With the historical framework clearly presented, Bertolucci could have explored the drastic changes that have taken place in sexual relations in films over the past twenty years. Jeanne and Paul are both getting something out of returning to clearly defined roles that our era has called in question. Both postwar U.S. and New Wave ideas about sex are ultimately shown to be inadequate. Jeanne and Paul do not manage to create a new place, free from their unsatisfactory lives. Paul uses Jeanne to act out a hostility that he brings with him from his painful world. He cannot let go of his suffering, be free with her, receive from her. His pain rather sours their world, making it harsh and ugly.
Jeanne, for her part, brings with her a casual irresponsibility and cannot meet Paul squarely and directly. She lets him dominate her without really confronting him seriously, knowing all the time that she is free to leave. Since Jeanne forms the bridge between the two worlds of the film, Bertolucci could have used her more effectively than he does. Had he developed her fully as a character, he could have contrasted the worlds she moves in more completely. From this point of view, it would have made structural sense to have Jeanne at the center of the film. With Paul taking the center, and Jeanne being superficially treated, the scenes with Tom and Jeanne seem irrelevant, except as a Godardian parody. More could have been done with the contrast between Paul and Tom as male types. Both types interestingly enough evolve out of the same male fantasy—that if women become strong, then men become weak, small and ineffectual. The Paul types depend on feeling superior to women in order to experience themselves as “manly” and worthwhile. The Tom types, who predominate in New Wave films, have given up their machismo strivings. Young, appealing and cute-looking, few of them take their male role very seriously, tending rather to self-mockery and a cynical outlook on everything.(5) Often these men are presented as dominated by female bitch types. If we are to judge by the movies, the training of neither men nor women has yet equipped them for a concept of mutuality and equality.
The contrast between Paul and Tom is implicit in the film, but it is hard to see how more could have been made of it without giving Jeanne a central role. Only through Jeanne’s consciousness could we come to see how Paul is holding on to an outdated macho concept in a world where women no longer willingly play a submissive role. On the, other hand, how little a man like Tom has to offer. The ending of the film resolves nothing and seems contrived because Jeanne has been inadequately developed. Had we really known her motivations, we would have had the key to the main ideas in the film.
For Joan Mellen,
Mellen sees Jeanne’s action as arising from the fact that she realized Paul “was no longer the strong father figure, but a real man beset by the identity of a flawed, inadequate human being,” and that she no longer wanted him. Another possibility is that Jeanne had come to realize that her relationship with Paul was destructive and sick. In order to be healthy, she had to kill that part of her that Paul represented. But both these interpretations have to be invented from the outside rather than “read” from the screen, since there is no evidence within the context of the film that any of this is going on. As it stands, the ending appears to be merely one more parody of Godard and New Wave cinema. Many New Wave films end with a sudden killing that does not appear to have much motive or structural meaning (as in BREATHLESS, VIVRE SA VIE, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, JULES AND JIM). Sudden death simply expresses the New Wave world view of the meaninglessness and absurdity of existence.
To interpret the ending this way, however, is to say that Bertolucci was not very serious about the entire film, and this is obviously not the case. Much of the confusion ultimately comes down to the problem of the film’s style. Bertolucci was clearly heavily influenced by New Wave filmmakers, and the opening sequences lead one to believe that the film will use that style. There are the location shots of Paris, the jump cuts, the meaningless and comic interactions with the lady at the apartment house, the mystery surrounding the characters. Bertolucci surely also learned from other Italian filmmakers (in turn influenced by the New Wave), and uses color and environment somewhat similarly to Antonioni in THE RED DESERT.
But, as I mentioned earlier, there is a suggestion of parody in the way the opening scenes are shot. This ironic attitude to the New Wave style is at first confusing. Also confusing is the way that Brando seems more “real” as a character than anyone else, and thus there is a strangeness about his interactions with people. In fact, as the film develops, we realize that Bertolucci is using two different styles for the two worlds in the film.
Brando’s world is presented through an aggressive, assaulting kind of style. The jump cuts are disorienting and jolting. Scenes often open up with the camera close-in on a face, or with a door opening. Often, we do not know where we are or who the person is. The narrative sequence is interrupted; we do not know anything about time. Brando is simply presented in contact with various people, and Bertolucci leaves it to us to figure out what they have to do with him and his past life. But the style fits Brando’s character and attitudes in the film. The scenes with Jeanne and Tom are shot quite differently. There the characters are often out in nature. There’s a certain lightness and lyricism in the bright colors. The group is often caught in long shot, and there are humorous aspects to what they are doing.
These contrasting styles are both parodied to a degree and it is through the irony that Bertolucci expresses the inadequacy of both the 50s U.S. style and the French New Wave film style. But still, the framework is missing that would make clear what he is saying through the criticism. Perhaps Bertolucci could have worked more with symbols to make his perspective known. The tango scene is successful because of the symbolic meanings it contains. Brando’s truculence and rebelliousness here for the first time take on explicitly cultural and anti-bourgeois dimensions. His behavior towards Rosa’s mother and towards people in the hotel throughout reflects a kind of adolescent rebelliousness against these people’s conventionality and rigidity, but all of this is shown clearly only in the tango scene. Here, the stiff, artificially dressed and made-up couples going through their rigid and highly stylized dance sequences symbolize all that is most distasteful to Brando in the old-style bourgeois world. He and Jeanne deliberately violate all the conventions and expectations of the situation, dancing wildly and drunkenly, ending with Brando’s removing his pants and with Jeanne’s masturbating Paul under one of the side tables.
At the same time, Bertolucci has found in the outdated tango a fitting corollary for Paul’s jaded ideas about male-female relations. For the first time, Paul becomes almost attractive. He has softened finally, and he has admitted his love for Jeanne. But, as out of date as the tango dancers, he does not understand Jeanne or her world. She is not real for him outside of himself. He thinks he can simply force her to marry him and make his life bearable, and he has no awareness of what she might want. As the two roll around on the tango floor, one realizes that Paul’s secure world has slipped out from under him. He is in a world whose bearings and rules he does not know and where he is therefore bound to fail.
The tango scene, thus, indicates what Bertolucci might have been able to do had he kept control over the film’s direction and built into it symbolic connotations that would give it coherence and meaning. There is no consistent perspective on Paul because Brando simply takes over the character, unheeding of larger meanings Bertolucci may have had in mind. In relation to the Brando character, the film is not a close study of the Paul type of man nor is it a comment on our sexuality today. Instead, the film simply becomes the story of a macho male with a sexy woman ready to go along with anything. Brought down to this level, the sex in the film becomes the film. Bertolucci has not managed to make the sex scenes an analysis of the incompatibility of old and new life styles, or of the alienated nature of relationships today.
However, the film is important in terms of film history. Bertolucci has correctly seen the inadequacy of both the 50s U.S. style and the French New Wave. He suggests that these styles served a function at the particular historical moment that produced them, but that they are outdated now. He seems to be saying that we must move on to something new, and that our social forms are as outworn as our film styles. But he unfortunately failed to provide any direction in this film. The framework is lacking that would have made his perspective clear and that would have placed styles in their historical context. As a result, people naturally focus on the sex scenes and take the film in the most literal manner, missing the deeper meanings buried in the film. But TANGO does present filmmakers that follow with the challenge of carrying out what he failed to do, and of initiating a new direction in film form that accords with the liberated radical consciousness of our period.
1. See the periodical Women and Film (2022 Delaware St, Berkeley, Ca. 94709), and recent books by female critics: Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (N.Y. 1973); and Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape (N.Y., 1973).
2. Crist, “LAST TANGO But Not the Last Word,” New York Magazine, Feb. 5, 1973; Haskell, untitled review, Village Voice, Oct. 26, 1972.
3. Mailer, “A Transit to Narcissus,” New York Review of Books, May 17, 1973; reprinted in Last Tango in Paris: A Screenplay with Photographs (N.Y., 1973).
4. Kael, “Introduction,” in Last Tango in Paris: A Screenplay with Photographs.
5. Michel in BREATHLESS and Charlie in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER set the tone for male types as did Patricia in BREATHLESS and Catherine in JULES AND JIM for female types. Having dropped out of the establishment’s rat-race, neither Michel nor Charlie have any ambitions left in life. They try to get along as best they can on their own, but they end up inevitably becoming involved in crime. Not tough enough to handle the gangster world, they try to find solace in love, only to be beaten at the end on all fronts.
6. Mellen, “Sexual Politics and Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS,” in Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (N. Y., 1973), p.144.
7. Imitations of LAST TANGO, like James Woods’ A GAME OF LOVE, take the sexual level by itself and make a pornographic art film out of it. TANGO, of course, is not pornography. The sex scenes are not played to be arousing at all (I do not understand why Pauline Kael found it so exciting, “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” she says). While the whole style and tone of TANGO is way above any imitation that is likely to be made, nevertheless the imitations reflect the slender line between pornography and art, which Bertolucci is in danger of ignoring in not building a definite perspective into his film.